“Makes for a disengaged reading experience” – Little Gods by Meng Jin

IMG_26Oct2021at1120171989, Shanghai: Zhu Wen, an aging widow, finds herself supporting a young neighbour, Su Lan, who has very recently given birth and whose husband has disappeared amidst the chaos of the shootings in Tiananmen Square. Seventeen years later, Su Lan, now living in the U.S., has died, and her orphaned daughter, Liya, returns to China to unearth her mother’s past and track down the truth about her father, long since presumed dead. Meanwhile, that same father, Yongzong, has in fact remarried and is living in Beijing, where he in turn is haunted by his memories of Su Lan, as well as those of his former classmate, and Su Lan’s one-time suitor, Zhang Bo.

Haunting is the key word here: Little Gods is all about ghosts. Su Lan was a physicist; her area of research was the possibility of overturning the Second Law of Thermodynamics and thereby travelling backwards through time. This, too, is what the novel itself is concerned with – uncovering the past via the traces still discernible in the present – and its timeline thus leaps back and forth, from Liya and Yongzong’s respective presents, to Yongzong’s past and that, too, of Zhu Wen, Su Lan’s old neighbour, and Zhang Bo. Neither Yongzong and Zhang Bo can escape the spectral versions of each other (and Su Lan) that they’ve each constructed to cover their own insecurities, and Su Lan, in each of their accounts, as well as Liya’s, seeks continuously to shed herself of a past and a heritage that she cannot fully escape. Liya, too, with her physical resemblance to her mother, is something of a ghostly figure, as she traverses the various sites of her parents’ pasts; both women and both times converge in her person as the other characters mistake her for her mother and are jolted back into considerations of their own histories with Su Lan. As Liya’s search intensifies, this convergence becomes literal: as she travels deeper into China, towards her mother’s mountain hometown, she, like Zhu Wen back in Shanghai, begins to see ghosts.

Thematically, then, it’s pretty cohesive; it’s neatly bookended with appearances from a Beijing nurse who cared for baby Liya and who’s able, inadvertently, to tie up the various narrative stands. These strands are fascinating in how they slip in details about the past few decades of Chinese life, from Bo and Lan’s respective childhoods of rural poverty, to Zhu Wen’s brief accounts of the Cultural Revolution and the changing face of Shanghai, and Liya’s own uncertain sense of identity as a momentarily returned American emigrant. It is, however, a novel that’s difficult to warm to: the prose is sharp, but the voices are not especially differentiated, which discourages any particular intimacy with the characters and their desires. This could, of course, be a deliberate strategy – Su Lan, after all, wholeheartedly fostered this distance – but it makes for a disengaged reading experience nonetheless.

Any Cop: There’s great skill on display here, but perhaps not an equivalent degree of heart, which seems a problem for a novel engaged with a group of disparate people desperately seeking an intimacy hitherto denied them.

Valerie O’Riordan

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